Challenge

The fire regime is changing in the U.S. and globally as a function of human-caused climate change and many other disturbances (e.g., land use change, introduction of invasive species, fire ignitions). The U.S. has experienced some of the worst fires on record in recent years.

Earth Lab studies several threads relating to how fire regimes are changing. We have studied changes in fire season, the proportion of fires that are human (vs. lightning) caused, and the conditions in which fires occur (e.g., fuel moisture, wind speed) across the U.S. One of our recent papers found that humans started 84% of all fires across the U.S. in recent decades (Balch et al. 2017; PNAS).

We also have a research concentration in large and extreme fires and better understanding the predictors of these events. Other key research areas include: the health and societal effects of fire, how settlement patterns are changing fire activity, and how fires interact with other disturbances/hazards (e.g., drought, insect infestations, invasive plant species). A recent paper (Fusco et al. 2019; PNAS) studied how invasive plant species are interacting with fire characteristics (e.g., fire occurrence, return interval, and size) in the perpetuation of a grass-fire cycle.

In our research we use a variety of data sources including field inventory data, USFS government reports, satellite, airborne, and drone data to answer questions at large spatial scales. We map fires regionally, across the U.S., and globally to understand fire patterns over time, seasonally, and across land covers and vegetation types. We bring computational power and data analytics expertise to answer fire-related research questions through Earth Lab’s Analytics Hub.

Publications

Balch JK, Nagy RC, Archibald S, Bowman DMJS, Moritz M, Roos CI, Scott AC, Williamson G. (2016). Global combustion: the connection between fossil fuel and biomass burning emissions (1997–2010). Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 20150177.

Balch, J.K., B.A. Bradley, J.T. Abatzoglou, R.C. Nagy, E. J. Fusco, and A.L. Mahood. (2017). Human-started wildfires expand the fire niche across the United States. PNAS, 114(11), 2946-2951. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1617394114

Balch J.K., T. Schoennagel, J. Abatzoglou, P. Williams, M. Cattau, N. Mietkiewicz, L. St. Denis. 2018. Switching on the big burn of 2017. Fire 1(1): 17, https://doi.org/10.3390/fire1010017

Bradley, B. A., C. A. Curtis, E. J. Fusco, J. T. Abatzoglou, J. K. Balch, S. Dadashi, and M.-N. Tuanmu. 2018. Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) distribution in the intermountain Western United States and its relationship to fire frequency, seasonality, and ignitions. Biological Invasions 20(6): 1493-1506. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10530-017-1641-8.

Nagy, R.C. C., E. Fusco, B. Bradley, J. T. Abatzoglou, and J. Balch. (2018). Human-related ignitions increase the number of large wildfires across U.S. ecoregions. Fire 2018, 1(1), 4. https://doi.org/10.3390/fire1010004

Fusco, E.J., J.T. Finn, J.K. Balch, R.C. Nagy, and B.A. Bradley (2019). Invasive grasses increase fire occurrence and frequency across U.S. ecoregions. PNAS, 116(47) 23594-23599. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1908253116

Mahood, A.L. and J.K. Balch (2019). Repeated Fires Reduce Plant Diversity in Low-Elevation Wyoming Big Sagebrush Ecosystems (1984-2014). Ecospherehttps://doi.org/10.1002/ecs2.2591

Research Grants

CAREER: Fire impacts on forest carbon recovery in a warming world: training the next generation of Earth analysts by exploring a missing scale of observations (PI: Balch)

USGS and NC CASC: Establishing the North Central Regional Invasive Speices and Climate Change (RISCC) Management Network. (PI: Nagy)

OPP: Novel Urban Fuel Models and Maps (PI: Balch)